Edinburg, Texas has bike lanes. Well, a few. Not that you would want to attempt to use them - too dangerous. Why are they dangerous? You might think it to be the brutal mid-summer temperatures. Not quite, but that certainly deters the number of people who would even begin to contemplate using said lanes. No, what renders the laughably titled 'bike-lanes' unsafe is that 99.5% of the automobile operators in the Valley believe that these lanes are actually turn lanes. Even the police use them as turn lanes.
I was thinking of the Edinburg bike lanes (and few additional topics regarding transportation that I will attend to in just a few moments) as I peddled around Munich, Germany last week. I thought, rather derisively, of the Edinburg bike lanes as I (and the rest of the family) dawdled along on bike lanes that were respected by both cars and pedestrians alike. When the bike lane veers onto the sidewalk (where many of them reside), the sidewalk is helpfully separated into a bike lane and a pedestrian lane. Pedestrians wander into the bike lanes at their own risk, and the pedestrians know that they have literally crossed a line into unsafe territory. They have their space, the bikes have theirs. Likewise, when the bike lanes swerve out into the road, the automobiles do not decide the use said bike lane as if the lane markings were mere suggestions to be ignored - they recognize that the bike lanes will be, most often, rather filled with people on bikes. I know, its astounding that one might actually find bicyclists in bike lanes.
The bike lanes, especially at rush hour, are as harrowing as any road filled with automobiles, as bicyclists of varying skill, speed, and nerve make their made dash home. I was rather proud of our kids as they managed to navigate the thicket of bike riders (the silent, speedy courier types being the greatest source of anxiety - their stealth capability puts the US military to shame - never before could you imagine that some bicyclist moving at just nearly light-speed, carrying a boxes of paperwork and multiple lap-tops could move without making a sound - although at least we didn't run into bicyclists carrying ladders, as we witnessed in Florence). What was even more impressive was the fact that the Munich bicyclists didn't even seemed phased that there would be a family putzing along in the bike paths at rush hour - we were accepted as simply a part of the movement of people attempting to get from Point A to Point B.
All said, the bike lanes work. Very well, thank you very much.
It made me think - for the umpteenth time, 'Why is it that outside of a number of major US cities, we can't seem to figure out how to move people from place to place without using cars?' The Valley is a perfect example of a place where public transportation could work, but likely never will, because in the US we are simply too much of a car culture to ever think that public transportation could possibly work. The Valley could use a light-rail system. Yes, it will cost money to build (though you would certainly put a good number of folks to work building such a system), but think of the long-term benefits: the ease of movement of vast numbers of people without resorting to them piling into cars, the benefit to the environment, the return to a more social and communal mode of transportation, ease of travel for retail shopping, perhaps even a far more enjoyable mode of transportation. Think of a rail system between the Valley and San Antonio - would this not open the Valley to greater business and commercial opportunities, not to mention making movement in and out of the Valley a great deal easier (and likely more cost-effective) for travel in general - as it stands now you either drive or fly.
Likewise, a series of actual bike lanes - safe lanes, not used by cars as escape hatches for exit and entrance - would be hugely beneficial, not least because it offers another option for getting around town, one that promotes better health and a cleaner environment (the weather is still a huge problem - nothing to be done about that, but I think we often use this as a crutch, or an excuse, so that we don't have to even bother thinking about the fact that we have serious health-care issues in the Valley, many of which have to do with a population with less than ideal eating and exercise habits).
A side note - a colleague of mine raised a fascinating point about the fact that many of our neighborhoods don't have sidewalks. He noted that a lack of sidewalks is a significant social statement - one that essentially says, 'we actually don't want people walking in our neighborhood, thank you very much - go find someplace else to wander about.' I think this goes hand in hand with all of the gated communities that are built in the Valley. Of course, the irony is that many of the gated communities have sidewalks. We are telling people that we would rather them not be around. This kind of fortress mentality is not particularly helpful, in neighborhoods, or nations.
Pubic transportation, usable and well built and maintained bike-lanes, actual sidewalks - these are all signs of a community, not a collection of isolated individuals who care little for others. When we retreat into our own little worlds (cars, neighborhoods, etc) we can pretend that as long as we are safe and sound then the rest of the world can go hang, and preferably at some distance to us. If we are continually faced with members of community, our sense of compassion and belonging grows.
I am not advocating some kind of urban utopia - I recognize quite well that such things are illusory, at best. I understand that every type of community has its own unique problems, but I am convinced that a society that celebrates individualism uber alles, is a society that will soon forget that we cannot exist very well without others. Hobbes wasn't completely wrong that if left to our own devices we would devolve back into a perfectly logical life of self-preservation, no matter the cost. It doesn't take long before an attitude of 'I got mine' will corrode society.
Bit of a slippery slope from hoping for bike lanes that are actually bike lanes? Guilty as charged. That doesn't mean that the two bits are not connected. Individualism isn't the problem, nor are rugged individualists. What worries me is the love of the concept of radical individualism and all of its concomitant expressions as worked out in American culture.